California Slaughter: The State-Sanctioned Genocide of Native Americans; What Happened to California Native Americans in the Mid-19th Century Was Not All That Different from What Happened to Jews, Armenians or Rwandans

By Nazaryan, Alexander | Newsweek, August 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

California Slaughter: The State-Sanctioned Genocide of Native Americans; What Happened to California Native Americans in the Mid-19th Century Was Not All That Different from What Happened to Jews, Armenians or Rwandans


Nazaryan, Alexander, Newsweek


Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

The tally is relentlessly grim: a whole settlement wiped out in Trinity County "excepting a few children"; an Indian girl raped and left to die somewhere near Mendocino; as many as 50 killed at Goose Lake; and, two months later, as many as 257 murdered at Grouse Creek, scores of them women and children. There were the four white ranchers who tracked down a band of Yana to a cave, butchering 30. "In the cave with the meat were some Indian children," reported a chronicle published later. One of the whites "could not bear to kill these children with his 56-calibre Spencer rifle. 'It tore them up so bad.' So he did it with his 38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver."

There have been books written about the systematic slaughter of California Indians, but none as gruesomely thorough as Benjamin Madley's An American Genocide, from which the above accounts come. He estimates that between 9,000 and 16,000 Indians, though probably many more, were killed by vigilantes, state militiamen and federal soldiers between 1846 and 1873, in what he calls an "organized destruction" of the state's largely peaceful indigenous peoples.

"I calculated the death toll using conservative estimates," Madley tells me. "I did not want to be accused of exaggeration." His book shows that the intent to rid California of its indigenous inhabitants was openly and repeatedly voiced, and that the means to achieve these ends were unambiguously brutal: mass deportations, slavery, massacres. He argues that what happened to California Indians was, according to the most widely accepted definition of genocide, not all that different from what happened to Jews, Armenians or Rwandans.

The debate over genocide in Native American history often turns to California, where the Native American population fell dramatically, from about 150,000 to 30,000, in the middle decades of the 19th century. It has since rebounded, so that California has the largest Native population in the United States today, with about 723,000 Indians, including many who belong to the state's 110 federally recognized tribes. The state is a microcosm of Indian country--and it is there, many believe, that Manifest Destiny culminated in the only way possible, with historians Robert Hine and John Faragher calling it "the clearest case of genocide in the history of the American frontier."

A neatly dressed 44-year-old, Madley looks less like a genocide scholar than a promising "Silicon Beach" junior executive. As we eat dinner at a crowded Santa Monica steakhouse, we might pass for two members of the local tech scene, though the waitress who brings our victuals catches alarming bits of conversation about massacres and mass graves that suggest we are not working on a data compression algorithm.

I first met Madley, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, on a warm spring day on the grounds of University High School in West Los Angeles, which is also a sacred site for the Tongva people, native to this region; their sacred springs sit on the UHS grounds, fenced off. The main spring remains active, and though I was told by my guide that pollutants have dirtied the water, this did nothing to disturb the surreally peaceful mood of the place. That was broken, however, by frequent sounds that very much resembled gunshots: A school track meet was taking place on the other side of the chain-link fence.

Today, the plain one-story building on the Kuruvungna Springs grounds functions as a museum and community center; 20 years ago, it was a classroom, and a significantly younger Ben Madley took German classes there. Back then, the UHS mascot was an Indian, adorned as such mascots often are, with a war bonnet. Madley had grown up around Indians--his father had been a psychotherapist on the California-Oregon border, working with the Karuk people there--so he knew that California Indians did not wear war bonnets, that these were the regalia of Plains tribes. …

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